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Ethical fashion takes a new direction with 'catalytic clothes' that purify polluted air

Matilda Lee

15th July, 2011

London College of Fashion recently unveiled a dress that purifies polluted city air through a chemical reaction on the surface of the fabric

The public outcry against London's dirty air is gaining speed. This month, major campaign groups such as Friends of the Earth, Client Earth, Sustrans and Environmental Protection UK came together through a newly-formed umbrella group, Healthy Air, to push for action; activist group Climate Rush performed a public ‘die in' in Soho Square; a timely film shows how dirty air affects Olympic athletes and Green MP Caroline Lucas coined air pollution as the UK's ‘invisible health crisis.'

But it's been a long time coming.

The UK has fallen short of meeting EU air pollution targets many times over the decades. Recently, the UK government asked for an extension on meeting EU targets on levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2), which is known to increase the likelihood of asthma and is implicated in cardiovascular illnesses.

Overall, a recent report by a Department of Health committee calculated the impact of air pollution as 6 months of life loss for the average person in the UK. Air pollution in London causes 4,267 deaths annually and nationally, is responsible for around 50,000 premature deaths.

One of the main sources of air pollution is from road transport and in particular, diesel vehicles. Gary Fuller from King's College London says a great deal of money has been spent in pollution abatement measures for diesel vehicles that haven't yielded the emissions reductions expected.

But the newest technological solution yet has come from a most unlikely corner- the fashion world.

Purifying dresses

Ethical fashion, widely defined as clothes with a reduced environmental impact, has now gone a step further in introducing fabric that, it is claimed, actually reverses the environmental impact of air pollution.

The Centre for Sustainable Fashion, the forward thinking green arm of the London College of Fashion, partnered with the University of Sheffield to come up with a textile used as a catalytic surface to purify our air.

The resulting Catalytic Clothing project recently launched - in a typically fashionable way - with a video featuring supermodel Erin O'Connor wearing an air purifying dress and a background track by Radiohead.

Suffice it to say that the project is still in very embryonic stages - there is no patent on the technology (indeed it is a new application of an existing technology), and Prof Tony Ryan, who with Prof Helen Storey is the brains behind the project, was emphatic that they are very interested in public comment and sparking a discussion in society of how this technology might work.

At such an early stage it is easy to poke holes in the idea: what about the overall environmental impact of the clothes? Green groups have raised doubts about the impacts of nanotechology and Professor Ryan told the Ecologist that when the air purifying clothes are washed, pollutants are leached into the water supply.

At the same time, the concept of using textiles to absorb pollution and clean the air you breathe will clearly attract interest in the clothing industry. Eco detergent brand Ecover are already involved in the project.

The London College of Fashion is calling for members of the public to help shape the technology. Below is a Q&A with the project's researchers describing how it works. You be the judge.

What is the science behind Catalytic Clothing?

Catalytic Clothing harnesses the power of a photocatalyst to break down air borne pollutants. A catalyst is a term used to describe something that makes a reaction proceed at a greater rate but isn't actually consumed during that reaction. A photocatalyst gains the energy it needs to be active from light.

How are the pollutants broken down?

When the light shines on the photocatalyst, the electrons in the material are rearranged and they become more reactive. These electrons are then able to react with the water in the air and break it apart into 2 radicals. A radical is an extremely reactive molecule. These radicals then react with the pollutants and cause them to break down into non-harmful chemicals.

What happens to the pollutants after they've been broken down?

The Catalytic Clothing technology is designed to breakdown the pollutants straight away. However, some pollutants may become attached without being broken down. In this case, the pollutants will be washed off during subsequent laundering. This actually already happens with normal clothing.

Is this technology used in any other products?

Photocatalysts have been incorporated into several commercially available products that possess de-polluting properties. These products include paints, cements and paving stones.

How is the technology delivered to the surface of the clothing?

The photocatalyst is delivered to the surface of the clothing during the traditional laundry procedure as an additive within a standard product such as a fabric conditioner. The active agent is packaged within a shell that is attracted towards, and subsequently binds to, the surface of the clothing during the washing cycle.

Why do we need mass participation to produce a noticeable reduction in the level of pollution?

Although any garment that is treated with the product becomes active, a single garment is only able to remove a small proportion of the air borne pollutants. Therefore, a large number of individuals, all acting together, is required to produce a noticeable reduction in the level of pollution.

How many people would need to participate to produce a noticeable reduction in the level of pollution?

An estimate of the required level of uptake for the Catalytic Clothing indicates that a significant reduction in the level of air borne pollutants in a large city such as London could be achieved if, for every metre of pavement width, 30 people wearing Catalytic Clothes walked past each minute.

Would someone wearing Catalytic Clothing be at a greater risk of exposure to pollutants?

No. The Catalytic Clothing technology won't actively attract any pollutants. Instead, it will break down anything that comes within very close proximity of the photocatalyst's surface.

How would society benefit if Catalytic Clothing was widely introduced?

Exposure to air borne pollutants presents a risk to human health and also has a detrimental effect on ecosystems and vegetation. Air pollution is currently estimated to reduce the life expectancy of every person in the UK by an average of 7-8 months. The widespread introduction of Catalytic Clothing would dramatically reduce the level of air borne pollutants, thereby improving the quality of life for all members of society.


Further information:

Catalytic Clothing
Facebook page
Twitter: @ProfHelenStorey

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